Vanessa Allen Sutherland – Norfolk Southern Corp.
“It always seems impossible until it is done.” This Nelson Mandela quote has always been a favorite of Vanessa Allen Sutherland.
And now is the time for inspiration, she said, speaking to Vanguard as COVID-19 infections were likely starting to peak nationwide in early April.
As executive vice president and chief legal officer at Atlanta-based Norfolk Southern Corp., she’s helping direct a team at the nearly 200-year-old railroad to keep the transport freight business rolling safely and efficiently despite widespread complications from the coronavirus.
No question, it’s a lot for an operation running routes across 19,500 miles and 22 states, with major clients including UPS and goods ranging from equipment to pharmaceuticals.
“While we are all encountering challenges—related and unrelated— to a pandemic, the silver lining is that we will learn lessons that will make operations safer for everyone for a long time to come,” Sutherland says.
Laying down the track
Hired in 2018, Sutherland accelerated work on a predictive analytics project and a legal operations team late last year. That project—which embraces technology and efficiency in the legal department—has provided a basis for a swift team response during a pandemic.
Part of the project is incorporating Big Data—for instance, choosing the appropriate level of insurance for specific types of incidents and uncovering law firm consolidation opportunities. That change could save more than $1 million annually. In addition, Sutherland’s team is rolling out new claims database tools this year—likely the first of their kind in the industry, she thinks.
“These tools will allow us to do everything from improve decision-making processes and reducing legal costs, to enhancing the company’s risk management analyses,” she says. “I already have a great team, which will now have greater tools at their disposal.”
Now that work is paying off in ways Norfolk Southern never anticipated. Just a few weeks into 2020, the department is able to work remotely seamlessly, accessing online billing portals, virtual meeting capabilities and shared files.
Treasure trove of data
Sutherland says Norfolk Southern’s other departments are also benefitting from the improvements. For instance, it’s now easier to track litigation, regulatory matters, billing and claims that can involve employees, customers, suppliers and regulatory agencies—anything from injuries to property damage.
“Managing that paper document portfolio was cumbersome,” Sutherland says. “Now we’ve found a treasure trove of electronic data, ripe for predictive analytics.”
Using the system, her team can see where settlements fell short; which locales generated spikes in litigation; and what settlement numbers looked like. The upshot in knowing all of this is that Norfolk Southern can decide how to plan and where to place its resources. The data-driven decisions save time and give a framework to determine what it should pay for a settlement, if a settlement is needed.
“Instead of looking individually at won or lost cases, we can look back at the data and analyze a trend,” Sutherland says. “From there, you can extrapolate the data and turn it into information for decision-making purposes.”
While the consumer products industry worked with this model for years, she says rail practices have been slower to adopt.
“Now this data can help with everything from crisis management, streamlining staffing decisions and redefining work allocation,” she says. “Operating to patterns based on fact helps us reallocate people effectively and is more constructive than reactive.”
Downtime is uptime
That forward-thinking paid off when NSC’s 70 attorneys and claims agents were forced to work remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. Sutherland requested remote training opportunities via WebEx, teaching everything from meeting tools such as Microsoft Teams, new legal ops tools, database structure and data collection, to analytics and VPN training.
It was challenging for some attorneys who wanted to remain true to an area of specialty. But learning new skills, from her point of view, is a necessity.
“This generalist philosophy allows me to groom people for the next wave of the company’s operations, getting attorneys tech-trained with transferable skills,” she says. “Should positions be lost, or people transferred to different departments, they will have a new skillset keeping them viable, or in a position to enhance their resumes.”
The move will also free up lawyers from tasks that can be centralized in legal operations, giving them additional time to work on strategy and outreach.
“Expertise and flexibility save time and money,” she says. “This approach also promotes retention of people, because they are seen as a nimble talent pool, with skills that can be used anywhere.”
Focus on the future
As the pandemic plays out, several factors are at play for Sutherland: balancing employee and operational safety concerns, as well as maintaining regular operations and developing a pathway for the company to progress.
From where she sits, there are three considerations to help achieve those goals. The first is to continue to bring new technology to the freight rail industry. To keep operations humming with low risk might mean the use of automated trains that could work safely with a smaller crew.
Secondly, from an industry perspective, she’s focusing on staying efficient, compliant and safe during the crisis. Part of that focus is responding to state and federal orders and adapting to any future requirements, necessitating constant communication with agencies such as the Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security.
“The lessons we’ve learned—and continue to grow from—help us pivot and develop alternative plans for the future,” she says.
A third consideration is developing best practices and open communication to support business-to-business relationships, facilitated through options such as mobile tools.
Once the pandemic subsides, “We’ll be able to look at the data and clearly see what works, what we can do better and how we’ll deliver customer service moving forward,” she says.
What Sutherland can say with certainty is that her team has shown strength, creativity and commitment during this crisis.
“There are certainly tough challenges ahead,” Sutherland says. “The good news, and what makes me proud, is that our people have gone the extra mile during this crisis.”
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